"I'm at a bar, trying to be with my friends," he begins, still a little peeved several months after the night in question, "and a dude comes up to me and says he wants a photograph, and I say no." The actor is folded into a bronze vinyl booth at the Brite Spot Family Restaurant, a kitschy diner on West Sunset, talking about the widely reported incident at Mad Bull's Tavern in Sherman Oaks in February that ended with one of Hollywood's most bankable stars chilling on the curb in handcuffs.
"Then he comes up with his girlfriend and says it's for her, and I say, 'Actually, I'm a little topsy-turvy, man. Can I not?'"
LaBeouf wishes he could handle such situations with more finesse. But then again, he doesn't. "I would like to be George Clooney diplomatic," the 25-year-old star concedes. "I just don't have the wherewithal yet or the inner serenity. My bullshit meter is tuned very sensitive. The minute it starts kicking up, I get back to truth, and sometimes that involves, you know, 'I don't want to take a picture.' And if that's the case, am I an asshole for being honest? Or am I an asshole for being dishonest, smiling in your picture and I fucking hate being there? Which one is worse? These are the questions I ask myself that George Clooney doesn't ask."
Apparently, the guy in the bar wasn't the type to ponder such issues either. He just wanted the photograph. "Then you go out to have a cigarette, and somebody comes at you," LaBeouf says. "Hey, I'm a human being also." That's his problem right there. LaBeouf's humanness, and his pigheaded if touching determination to hang on to it—no matter how insane the scene they throw up on the green screen behind him, or how outlandishly beautiful the women they pair him with, or how many zeros they cram onto his paychecks (see Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in theaters June 29)—keep getting him into trouble. That and the moonshine.
"I was actually researching," he says of his hooch-drinking session several hours before the bar fight, as the waitress places a cheeseburger before him. "As crazy as that sounds, to blame it on the acting thing, I was getting ready to make a movie about dudes who live on moonshine every single day."
Reaching for his iPhone, LaBeouf loads the 12-minute "sizzle reel" of footage from The Wettest County in the World, which was sold to the Weinstein Company after a hard-fought bidding war the previous day at Cannes. Directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by the rocker-poet Nick Cave, the film stars Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and LaBeouf as bootlegging brothers in Prohibition-era Appalachia.
Anyway, LaBeouf and his costars had been drinking moonshine at dinner after their table reading. "I went to this bar, and I don't know. You sort of root for certain behavior." He's wearing a T-shirt with a teddy bear on it, black jeans, and hiking boots. He's bulked up considerably since he first achieved notoriety as the dandelion-headed wisenheimer Louis Stevens on the Disney Channel series Even Stevens—though he's not quite as jacked up as he was when he was working out twice a day and gulping down creatine and protein shakes to prepare for Wettest County. "Dude, I was 185 and ripped," he says.
LaBeouf is good company, garrulous and intense, with an appealing touch of the angry young man about him. He spits constantly when he's outside ("I have a wet mouth") and is given to reciting poetry, reading me Charles Bukowski's "Bluebird" and "B as in Bullshit" off his iPhone. He drives an enormous black Silverado pickup and a Thruxton Triumph 900 motorcycle, carries a folding Kershaw knife, and displays a Holden Caulfield—esque allergy to phoniness that makes one wonder how he can stand Hollywood at all.